From the Archive: What’s all the fuss about smashing atoms?

A book, The Times We Lived In, with more than 100 photographs and commentary by Arminta Wallace, published by Irish Times Books (€19.99), is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks and from bookshops If you’re a bit disenchanted with the Higgs boson hoo-ha, which emanates from the laboratories at Cern, in Switzerland, on a regular basis (“We’ve found it! No, hang on a second, here it is… “He destroyed the scientific universe by building his own particle accelerator out of old car batteries and baked bean tins.”)

The determinedly downbeat mood of the piece is echoed by Jack McManus’s picture. Oops – we’ve lost it again… Dr Walton is described as “a quiet, shy man in his early 50s” who, when asked whether he wouldn’t like to go off and get a glamorous job in atomic physics elsewhere, replied: “No, I am far too fond of Ireland to wish to leave it.”

The author of the feature clearly didn’t harbour any ambitions to be a pop-science superstar. You can buy this and other Irish Times images from irishtimes.com/photosales. Dang, maybe not”) have a look at today’s photograph. There’s a hint of humour in the application of that biro, but overall, Dr Walton’s expression is rather guarded. The machine, its knobs and rods gleaming in a slightly sinister and utterly unfathomable manner, is given equal visual status with the scientist. It shows Ernest Walton, joint winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1951, doing something highly technological with a biro in a lab in Trinity College Dublin. Sort of… Maybe he can see the future, and it’s the overblown soap opera that is Cern. The headline reads simply, “ETS Walton, FTCD”. Walton’s historic achievement in smashing the nucleus of the atom at the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge in the 1930s is dispatched with one no-nonsense swipe, namely: “It is difficult for the layman to grasp either the process or the results of this experiment.”

(Can you imagine how the Cern equivalent would read? The unsigned article was part of an Irish Times series called Portrait Gallery.